Over the course of my years working with children as a Licensed Professional Counselor, I have observed the myriad effects of infidelity on families. I have supported unsure parents and despairing children alike, and the consequences of infidelity are clear. It impacts the couple. It impacts the children. It impacts generations.
Statistics regarding the prevalence of infidelity vary. A subject of shame, embarrassment, and judgment, infidelity can be a difficult matter to discuss even privately between the affected. Likewise, it is underreported in studies. However, research suggests that up to 70 percent of couples may experience infidelity. Infidelity has no perimeters; it impacts people of all races, all sexualities, all ages, and all genders.
Following the discovery of infidelity, it is essential for the betrayed partner to feel supported by loved ones. This is no simple task, as individuals can understandably have strong feelings regarding the event and the choices that need to be made in its wake. However, it is important to separate your own feelings and to recognize that people must make their own decisions. Offering unconditional support is essential to helping your loved one process infidelity.
Here are 10 tips for supporting a loved one who has recently discovered their partner was unfaithful:
1. Understand that infidelity is a form of trauma—specifically betrayal trauma. As with any other form of trauma, the affected may experience vivid memories, display extreme emotional reactions, become hypervigilant, and show increases in anxiety and depression. Oftentimes, individuals will be induced toward a fight-or-flight response.
2. Avoid judgement. Though it is natural to feel angry or upset that a person you love was harmed, the way in which you share these feelings is key. Be gentle. Let the person know that you care about them and their happiness. Harsh judgments of the offending partner may come easily, but insensitive expression may lead your loved one to withdraw.
3. Keep your own feelings in check. You may find yourself subject to a wide array of emotions regarding the infidelity. However, hurtful comments and anger—whomever they are directed at—can further upset an already distressed victim. People carry the words and feelings we leave with them.
4. Understand that your loved one will have to make their own choices. However you feel about what occurred, it will be up to them and, yes, their partner to decide whether reconciliation is possible. You will, of course, have your own feelings about the matter, but ultimately you will need to accept and support their decision.
5. Be prepared for the roller-coaster ride of emotions. One moment your loved one might be angry, and the next moment they might be sad. They may reach out to you sometimes, and other times they may withdraw. There will be a process of grief. Infidelity shatters one’s understanding of a relationship, which can lead to painful reexamination of events preceding it and even other relationships.
6. Understand that triggers are everywhere. It is easy but unhelpful to tell someone to just move on and forget. A name, a place, a conversation, a memory—anything somehow connected in a person’s mind to their trauma—can unavoidably return them to said trauma and invoke an adrenaline response. Understand that this is a defense mechanism—a person hyperaware and on guard is granted a sense of security. It is a false sense, but it may be all they have. Over time, as an individual works toward healing, their triggers typically become less intense and less frequent.
7. Understand that in matters of marriage infidelity, therapists will ask couples to make evaluations differentiating friends of the individual and friends of the marriage. However well-intentioned you may be in your support of the individual, if a potentially salvageable partnership is at stake, what they might most need from you is support of their marriage. If your loved one chooses to give their partner another chance, they may ask you to do the same.
8. Know that infidelity changes everything—not only the couple’s relationship, but their relationships with others as well. It changes how the betrayed partner sees both the world and themselves. It impacts self-esteem.
9. Offer unconditional support. The path after discovery is a difficult and lonely one not easily understood by those who haven’t traveled it. It can be the most trying time in a person’s life and thus the time they most need your love and understanding.
10. Make it “okay” for the person to talk about their experience. Be there. Listen. Let them express their anger. Allow them time to fall apart and help them to rebuild. Love them without judgement. Provide a safe space for them to express their feelings. Remember that you do not need to fully understand what someone is going through to be able to provide healthy support.
I hope that your biggest takeaway from this article is that people living in the aftermath of infidelity are on an arduous journey, much of the outcome of which depends on the support of friends and family. I hope that no matter the circumstances, you are able to demonstrate essential love and compassion.